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The legend begins...
Greece in the age of heroes. Patroclus, an awkward young prince, has been exiled to the court of King Peleus and his perfect son Achilles. Despite their difference, Achilles befriends the shamed prince, and as they grow into young men skilled in the arts of war and medicine, their bond blossoms into something deeper - despite the displeasure of Achilles' mother Thetis, a cruel sea goddess.
But when word comes that Helen of Sparta has been kidnapped, Achilles must go to war in distant Troy and fulfill his destiny. Torn between love and fear for his friend, Patroclus goes with him, little knowing that the years that follow will test everything they hold dear
► After having hesitated for a long time, I decided to give 4 stars to The Song of Achilles, no matter how flawed I thought it was. The reason for this is that I know that this book will linger, and that I treasure this kind of feelings above everything. This being said, it does not mean that I’m able to overlook what annoyed me, and I will try to give it the fairest review possible – if such thing really exists, which I doubt.
Look, I’m not going to argue over details and trying to decipher if Madeline Miller stays true to the original(s) because for me there is no such thing as a perfect retelling, but I’ll say this : she manages to mix the greatest events of the Iliad with crediting other opinions, as Eschyle’s, and fills in the blanks, creating this way a believable and captivating story with them. What more would we ask for? If reading this book can convince people to have a look at classics, I’d say that The Song of Achilles is without any doubt a success, and I immensely enjoyed every one of the references.
Madeline Miller‘s writing, if not exempt of purple prose sometimes (I’ll come back to that), stays compelling and flows smoothly, capturing these Great characters in a simple light that I found really enjoyable. One might say that most of the story is rather dull, and I sure cannot disagree with them. Yet even if I wanted more, I do understand the path Miller chose : this is not the story of great battles and honors. This is the story of the men behind them. Stripped of the sparkling lights of fame, they remain flawed men whose lives also know their fair share of boredom and everyday events. Oh, and they made me laugh, too. I swear!
Along the way The Song of Achilles brings an interesting thinking about what it means to be famous and the dangers of losing who we are to fulfill our pride’s needs. In that, she nails her subject in my opinion, as well as the evolution of Patroclus’ love for Achilles. See, if you take an unflinching look at all these Greek Heroes and Gods, they’ve really nothing to be proud of, to be honest. Parricides. Fratricides. Rapists. Liars. Self-absorbed. Mad. So very stupid, really. I loved that she didn’t try to make us love them but offered some pieces of understanding – yes, I’m talking about Achilles.
“Who was he if not miraculous and radiant? Who was he if not destined for fame?”
Unfortunately the pacing was uneven and the second half didn’t work for me as much as the beginning. Bored, I grew restless, my inner devil urging me to skim (I didn’t), especially between 60 and 75%. The ending makes it worth it, though. I’m not one for changing my rating because of the way a book ends but I can’t deny that the way Madeline Miller splendidly wrapped her plot impressed me so much that I know it influenced my rating a little.
“This feeling was different. I found myself grinning until my cheeks hurt, my scalp prickling till I thought it might lift off my head. My tongue ran away from me, giddy with freedom. This and this and this, I said to him. I did not have to fear that I spoke too much. I did not have to worry that I was too slender or too slow. This and this and this!”
I know that many readers didn’t like that aspect, but one of my favorite part was the romance, especially because it was flawed. Beware, the first half is mostly focused on Patroclus and Achilles’ growing relationship, so if you can’t stand romance it could be hard to handle (just thought I’d warn you :P)
In my opinion the way Patroclus went from a blind – and, really, obsessed – love for Achilles to the lucid acceptation of his flaws was wonderfully handled. It didn’t start promisingly, though. I mean, in the beginning Patroclus worships Achilles way too much, nurtures some weird fixation on his feet (I swear! He can’t stop mentioning them!) and can’t keep his mouth shut about how fucking beautiful Achilles is. So as a reviewer the only thing I can say is – it is there. If you’re put off by somewhat unrealistic and purple descriptions of love from a young teenager it will upset you. But as a reviewer I must also say that for someone who can’t stand purple prose 9 times out of 10, I still loved it, because I understood Patroclus need to be accepted and how he transferred it to his princely companion. Not to mention that his love evolves along with him, and more we progress through the story, more it appears that his puppy love morphs into something way more mature and realistic.
“I know, now, how I would answer Chiron. I would say : there is no answer. Whichever you choose, you are wrong.”
But let’s talk about Patroclus, okay? I adored him and the way his character grew through the story. From a shy and rejected child to a fierce and compassionate man, he is complex and cannot be limited to his relationship with Achilles. Loyal, he’s still able to see the mistakes his lover does and always tries his best to find the best way to handle things. He’s not perfect, but really, nobody is, and that’s for the best. In a world where warriors are put on pedestals, how to survive when you prefer healing than killing?
“My stomach feels burned to cinders; my palms ache where my nails have cut into them. I do not know this man, I think. He is no one I have ever seen before”
My feelings towards Achilles are way more complicated, but I don’t think we’re meant to love him. See, I always pictured Achilles as this bragging proud hulk – and there are hints of this part of him still, yes. He doesn’t know how to be himself in a different way, and if his young self is pretty likeable, he grows more and more indifferent to everything but Patroclus and himself. His conscience seems to go MIA several times and I sure can’t forgive some of the decisions he took (especially toward women), but again, I’m not supposed to.
“He is a weapon, a killer. Do not forget it. You can use a spear as a walking stick, but that will not change its nature.”
Yet his love for Patroclus was so big, I couldn’t help but feel, if not sorry, but sad for him and for the path his life took. However, I never fully connected with him and I regret that his character wasn’t as true-to-life than Patroclus, especially as an adult (I really liked his teen self full of mischief, though).
If I’m being honest, at first I had a hard time understanding why Patroclus loved him so much – except because he was handsome and skilled, it goes without saying. But as I stated earlier, I genuinely think that Achilles fulfilled Patroclus fierce need to be accepted, to be taken care of – and I can’t argue with that.
As for the other characters, I applaud Madeline Miller for making them feel so real, even if I would have wanted better roles for the women, who either stay overshadowed and grandly mistreated and abused (I know that this world was harsh and unforgiving towards women, but still, I was furious) or are pictured as greedy bitches. They are the big absent of this story, and that’s a shame – but this is the case in the original(s), therefore I’m not sure I can hold a grudge against Miller for this. I did appreciate how Patroclus tried to make things better in the end, even if it wasn’t enough.
A special award for Chiron – God, this sarcastic Centaur is perhaps my favorite character in the whole book. Well, except Patroclus.
“He paused. “You have been taught to ride, I suppose?”
We nodded, quickly.
“That is unfortunate. Forget what you learned. I do not like to be quizzed by legs or tugged at.”
► To sum-up, if you have an interest in Greek Mythology and don’t shy away from romance, I think you should give this book a chance. I can’t wait to hear your thoughts.